He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Fair Questions: What does the Qur'an say about Mary?

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

When I read the Qur'an for myself for the first time, one of the things I found interesting was that there is a surah named after Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The surah on Maryam has a set of rhyming schemes and other literary aspects that I do find interesting, but at the moment I'm interested in the contents of its message to the reader of the Qur'an.

But the surah named after Mary isn't the only place in the Qur'an we learn about Mary.  In "The House of Imran," the conception and birth of Mary are narrated.  The name for Mary's father in the ancient Christian tradition is Joachim, but it is rendered in Arabic as Imran.  The name of Mary's mother is often rendered as Anna in the Christian tradition, though I've only seen it rendered as Hannah from the Qur'an.

In this particular passage, Hannah is not named (being referred to as Imran's wife), but many important figures of Judaism are named quite explicitly:

God chose Adam and Noah
and the House of Abraham
and the House of Imran
above all beings, the
seed of one another;
God hears, and knows.
When the wife of Imran
said, 'Lord, I have vowed
to Thee, in dedication,
what is within my womb.
Receive Thou this from me;
Thou hearest, and knowest.'
And when she gave birth to her
she said, 'Lord, I have given
birth to her, a female.'
(And God knew very well
what she had given birth to;
the male is not as the female.)
'And I have named her Mary,
and commend her to Thee
with her seed, to protect them
from the accursed Satan.'
Her Lord received the child
with gracious favour,
and by His goodness
she grew up comely,
Zachariah taking
charge of her.  Whenever
Zachariah went in to her
in the Sanctuary, he
found her provisioned.
'Mary,' he said,
'how comes this to thee?'
'From God,' she said.
Truly God provisions
whomsoever He will
without reckoning.

The story of Mary's conception isn't featured in the New Testament of the Bible.  So there's really only one place that the Prophet Muhammad would have gotten that information in the 600s to put it in the Qur'an.  At the time, Christianity and Judaism were well-established in various parts of the Middle East, including on the Arabian peninsula.  Also, the Christian oral traditions about Mary's conception were well-established and represented in Christian artwork, and these traditions are likely the source material for this narrative in the Qur'an.

There are references to Zachariah in the New Testament, however, and he and his wife are written of in the Qur'an as well as the Bible.  The next part of the passage details Zachariah's prayer for a son, and God's answer to that prayer in the form of John the Baptist.  Because it is essentially the same as another passage in the 'Maryam' surah, I am skipping it here and moving on to the next passage about Mary.

And when the angels said,
'Mary, God has chosen
thee, and purified
thee; He has chosen
thee above all women.
Mary, be obedient to
thy Lord, prostrating
and bowing before Him.'
(That is of the tidings
of the Unseen, that We
reveal to thee; for thou
wast not with them, when
they were casting quills
which of them should have
charge of Mary; thou
wast not with them, when
they were disputing.)
When the angels said,
'Mary, God gives thee good
tidings of a Word from Him
whose name is Messiah,
Jesus, son of Mary;
high honoured shall he be
in this world and the next,
near stationed to God.
He shall speak to men
in the cradle, and of age,
and righteous shall he be.'
'Lord,' said Mary,
'how shall I have a son
seeing no mortal has
touched me?' 'Even so,'
God said, 'God
creates what He will.
When He decrees a thing
He does but say to it
"Be," and it is.

This narrative is somewhat different from the narrative of the Annunciation in the New Testament in a few important ways.  One is that it specifically claims that the angels declared to Mary that her son would speak to men as an infant, which likely comes from Gnostic sources such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with which people of the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and other parts of the Mediterranean region would have at least been somewhat familiar.

Another is that the means of deciding who would be Mary's guardian was apparently a randomized one equivalent to drawing straws or flipping coins, perhaps indicating that it was God who had made the decision that Zachariah and his wife would care for Mary.  The last is that this account of the Annunciation is much more detailed in describing what was revealed to Mary about Jesus, as if it were reading later revelations about Jesus's role back into the earlier narrative.

But what is very striking to me is how much honor is given to Mary, that God has chosen her above all women.  And also that in Islam, Mary has many titles given to her, just as she does in the ancient Christian traditions that were around when Islam was founded.  She is called Queen of the Saints, for example, a high honor indeed.  Her unique place of honor in Islam may be the reason for having a surah named after her, or it may be the other way around.

Either way, the surah named after Mary is an important part of the Qur'an to consider when learning what is said about her in the Qur'an.  Like many things in the Islamic world, the surah entitled 'Maryam' begins with the invocation of the name of God in the traditional Bismillah:

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
Kaf Ha Ya Ain Sad
The mention of thy Lord's mercy
unto his servant Zachariah;
when he called upon his Lord 
saying, 'O my Lord, behold
the bones within me are feeble
and my head is all aflame with
And in calling on Thee, my Lord,
I have never been hitherto
And now I fear for my kinsfolk
after I am gone; and my wife
is barren.  So give me, from Thee,
     a kinsman
who shall be my inheritor
and the inheritor of the House
of Jacob; and make him, my Lord
'O Zachariah, We give thee
good tidings of a boy, whose name
     is John.
No namesake have we given him

The Quranic narrative of Zachariah's plea to God is fairly similar to the narrative in the New Testament: he makes reference to his old age and he was told of his son's name.  The narrative differs, however, in describing Zachariah's request for a son to make sure his property was passed down and his family cared for.

That wasn't a part of the narrative in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke.  And the Quranic narrative is missing the parts of Luke's Gospel in which the angel is telling Zachariah about John not drinking alcohol and going forth in the spirit and power of Elijah.

But there are some more similarities:

He said, 'O my Lord, how
shall I have a son, seeing
my wife is barren, and I
have attained to the declining
     of old age?'
Said He, 'So it shall be; thy
Lord says, "Easy is that for
Me, seeing that I created
thee aforetime, when thou wast
He said, 'Lord, appoint to me
some sign.'  Said He, 'Thy sign
is that thou shalt not speak to
men, though being without fault,
     three nights.'
So he came forth unto his
people from the Sanctuary,
then he made the signal to them,
'Give you glory at dawn and
'O John, take the Book forcefully';
and We gave him judgment, yet a
     little child,
and a tenderness from Us,
and purity; and he was
godfearing, and cherishing
his parents, not arrogant,
'Peace be upon him, the day
he was born, and the day he
dies, and the day he is raised
     up alive!'

The question about how this is possible, given his age and his wife's age, is also featured in the Gospel of Luke.  But the narrative about his being unable to speak after asking for a sign is rather different.  In the Gospel of Luke, Zachariah is made mute because he doubted the angel's announcement and is unable to speak until his son John is born.

But in the 'Maryam' surah, he is given a much lighter sentence of 3 nights that functions as a sign only rather than both a sign and a penance.  And after the part about Zachariah leaving the Sanctuary of the temple to greet the people, the similarities end very quickly.  In the Gospel of Luke, there's no exhortation to John about taking the Book and no prophecy about peace being upon him at birth, death, and resurrection.

Now that we've learned about the Quranic depiction of John the Baptist and the strange circumstances of his conception and birth, we get to Mary and see that her situation has some interesting parallels to the situation of Zachariah and Elizabeth.

And mention in the Book Mary
when she withdrew from her people
     to an eastern place,
and she took a veil apart from them;
then We sent unto her Our Spirit
that presented himself to her
     a man without fault.
She said, 'I take refuge in
the All-Merciful from thee!
     If thou fearest God....'
He said, 'I am but a messenger
come from thy Lord, to give thee
     a boy most pure.'
She said, 'How shall I have a son
whom no mortal has touched, neither
     have I been unchaste?'
He said, 'Even so thy Lord has said:
"Easy is that for Me; and that We
may appoint him a sign unto men
and a mercy from Us; it is
     a thing decreed."'

The beginning of this part of the passage seems to allude to Mary being a consecrated virgin, given the references to withdrawing to an eastern place and taking the veil, and this would make sense if the Prophet Muhammad was familiar with Christian oral traditions about Mary, though that particular oral tradition isn't present in the Gospel of Luke.

At the end, there is an absence of Mary's agreement to the Lord's plan when she says, "Let it be done to me according to your word!"  In the Gospel of Luke, Mary consents to conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in the Quranic narrative she doesn't consent and takes a very different attitude toward the whole thing.

So she conceived him, and withdrew with him
     to a distant place.
And the birthpangs surprised her by
the trunk of a palm-tree.  She said,
'Would I had died ere this, and become
     a thing forgotten!'
But the one that was below her
called to her, 'Nay, do not sorrow;
see, thy Lord has set below thee
     a rivulet.
Shake also to thee the palm-trunk,
and there shall come tumbling upon thee
     dates fresh and ripe.
Eat, therefore, and drink, and be
comforted; and if thou shouldst see
     any mortal,
say, "I have vowed to the All-Merciful
a fast, and today I will not speak
     to any man."'
Then she brought the child to her folk
carrying him; and they said,
'Mary, thou hast surely committed
     a monstrous thing!
Sister of Aaron, thy father was not
a wicked man, nor was thy mother
     a woman unchaste.'
Mary pointed to the child then;
but they said, 'How shall we speak
to one who is still in the cradle,
     a little child?'

The deep despair of Mary in the midst of the pain of childbirth under a palm tree seems pretty realistic, but immediately afterwards, God provides her with an unaccounted-for source of soothing water and fresh fruit from the tree (which reminds me a bit of the Buddha's infancy narrative).

Another interesting point is that the Quranic narrative has Mary vowing to speak to no man, which is very different from the New Testament depictions of the Nativity of Jesus.  Those depictions include Joseph her betrothed, who is notably and completely absent from the Quranic narrative.

Another thing that seems very realistic is the Quranic narrative's description of her family's reaction to her having a child, which is then followed by something miraculous, just as Mary's realistic childbirth pains were followed by something miraculous.

He said, 'Lo, I am God's servant;
God has given me the Book, and 
     made me a Prophet.
Blessed He has made me, wherever
I may be; and He has enjoined me
to pray, and to give alms, so
     long as I live,
and likewise to cherish my mother;
He has not made me arrogant,
Peace be upon me, the day I was born,
and the day I die, and the day I am
     raised up alive!'
That is Jesus, son of Mary,
in word of truth, concerning which
     they are doubting.
It is not for God to take a son
unto Him.  Glory be to Him!  When He
decrees a thing, He but says to it
     'Be,' and it is.
Surely God is my Lord, and your
Lord; so serve you Him.  This is
     a straight path.

The narrative of Jesus' speaking like an adult who knows the future while still an infant is a fascinating appropriation of and rejection of Christian tradition.  It explicitly endorses the view that Jesus is a Prophet (which is what Muslims believe) and denies that Jesus could be the Son of God (which is what Christians believe).  And it doesn't resemble traditional Christian formulations at all; this is clearly an early Islamic tradition in the way it is written and the substance of its message.

Throughout the Quranic narratives on Mary, we see an interesting blend of ancient Christian tradition and early Islamic tradition that sought to return the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) to the straight path that the Prophet Muhammad understood them to be deviating from.  The Prophet Muhammad was a reformer of religion; he believed that Christianity and Judaism had become corrupted along the way and that he needed to restore people to the true religion of God.

*     *     *

These passages are not the only references to Mary in the Qur'an, and if you want more information about those references and how Mary is viewed in Islam, I recommend both reading the Qur'an for yourself and reading the thoughts of Islamic commentators on it.

Note:  The above is an image of a copy of the Qur'an opened to the "Maryam" surah.

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